I can’t believe three years have already passed since one of the seminal events in my life occurred.
The adventure I undertook was the culmination of a lifelong dream, a bucket list item I thought would never happen—but it did.
It was three years ago I white-watered the Grand Canyon for seven days and then walked out of the Canyon after hiking Bright Angel Trail, a 7000-foot climb from the river to the South Rim with over 40 pounds of gear on my back. It was something I had dreamed about doing as a nine-year old, but later it became a quest to prove I had really conquered three bouts of colon cancer in the five years before I signed up for the adventure of my lifetime. After the completion of the Grand Canyon odyssey, I turned 60 three days later. I had done it. Other than raising my four children, it is the proudest accomplishment of my life.
I first started dreaming about doing the Grand Canyon adventure back in the 1960s before I was 10-years old. I saw a story in Life magazine showing Robert F. Kennedy white-watering the Colorado River through the Canyon and thought ‘Wow, that looks awesome! I’m going to do that some day!”
The story in Life magazine said Bobby Kennedy was tempting fate, that he was still mourning the loss of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and was recklessly attempting feats of daring in an effort to forget about the loss of his brother. A year later, he too was gunned by an assassin in Los Angeles.
I was an impressionable lad at the time, and grew up idolizing Jack and Bobby. I vowed someday I would do the Canyon, but then the reality of life came along. As I got older, finished law school and then got married, I kept coming back to the Grand Canyon. I was born in Phoenix, and I remember as a very young boy taking trips with my parents to the south rim and marveling at God’s handiwork from above. I visited the Grand Canyon a number of times as I got older, and the idea kept rolling through my mind wondering what it would be like to actually ride those epic rapids.
After marriage came four kids, thinking about how to pay for college educations, plus all the other things that come along in life and affect what you can and cannot do. As the kids got older, I started putting the dream in the back of mind, thinking I was getting too old and it would never happen.
In 2013, life threw me a curveball. In October, I went in for a routine colonoscopy and the results came back positive. They had found a tumor so I underwent the knife for the first time. I spent a year on chemo and rehabbing, but then in 2015 it came back with a vengeance. The tumor had metastasized and was diagnosed as advanced Stage 4. After two operations in June and November of 2015, my life did another about face. After the second surgery in November, the Chief Surgeon at Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit, MI gave me the news that changed my life: “You are my miracle, Terry. The tumor is completely gone, it hasn’t spread into your lymph nodes and we can’t find it in any of the surrounding tissues. Go live your life. You are meant to do something different.”
After a lengthy recovery in 2016, my eyes turned again to the Grand Canyon. I started working out and exercising again. I had to prove to myself that I was going to survive and live a good life, but I had to make it out of the Canyon.
There were over 35 of us who did the epic adventure in late June of 2017. My good friend and rancher Bruce Morgan from Athens, Texas went with me, and we met folks from California, Texas, Indiana, New York, Germany and Colorado on our trip. The Canyon was majestic and was everything I hoped it was and ever could be. The whitewater was extraordinary. We chose to paddle our rafts through the whitewater, and I always sat in the front to take on the river.
We all became good friends on the trip, and the last night we were in the Canyon our guide told us the next day we had one heck of a hike ahead of us in order to get out of the great abyss. He said there would be someone to meet the last person out on our trip, and I quickly raised my hand to say that would be me. I explained to everyone what I had been through and why I was on the trip. I told them I didn’t care if I had to crawl out of the Canyon—I would. I was going to make it.
The next morning, we started climbing out at 7 a.m. I was okay for a little while, but after a few hours I was spent. It was 114-degrees in the Canyon. When we made it to the halfway house at noon and met the guide who was going to walk us out, things quickly went south. “Hurry up gentlemen,” she said. “I have to make it out of here so I can be home to make supper for my husband.”
This went on a for an hour or so as I continued to struggle up the path when I finally had enough. “If you don’t shut up about your damn husband, I’m going to throw you off this ledge. I’m making it out of this Canyon with or without you so get out of our way.” My friend Bruce just smiled and said, “He’s serious. He’s climbing out of here or it will kill him. If I were you, I’d shut up.”
After nine hours, Bruce and I finally made it out of the Canyon. We embraced, and the two of us plus the guide cried. I looked at Bruce in all my grime, dirt and sweat and managed to croak, “Come on Bruce, I’ll buy you a beer.”
We walked over a rise on the trail and there was the surprise of my lifetime. All of the people who were on the trip with us were waiting to see if I would make it. They came running over and cheered. Smiles, hugs and tears were everywhere. The folks from California said they wanted to buy Bruce and I a steak dinner. “You were an inspiration to us all, and we’re so proud to have been on this adventure with you.”
Well, my name has not been mentioned as inspirational in the same sentence in my lifetime, so that got the waterworks going again.
We had those steaks, and we have the memories of those days forever. It is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, and I know on my death bed I’ll remember that time, smile broadly, then close my eyes and die.